My Custom Chaparral

by Carolyn Longstreth

Mimulus aurantiacus (Monkeyflower). Photo by Laura Camp.
Mimulus aurantiacus (Monkeyflower). Photo by Laura Camp.

Like many California homeowners, we have a steep slope on our property. When we bought the place in Northern California in 2006, I was baffled how to create a garden there. It’s an informal area but too steep for a cottage-style mix of roses and perennials.  But the area turned out to be the sunniest part of our yard, despite its northwestern exposure and some large trees growing near the top. The gardener in me was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. We terraced the steepest spots and continued to ponder the challenge.

Eventually, I came up with the idea I now call my custom chaparral: We would plant the slope in a loose arrangement of low-growing, drought-tolerant woody shrubs– nothing taller than 6 feet.  Between the shrubs, would be bunchgrasses, perennials and annuals. Because I love to grow natives and we did not plan to provide summer water, I decided to limit myself to California natives– not a major restriction, given the phenomenal diversity of our state’s indigenous flora. For me, using native species in the garden enhances the sense of place and, of course, makes the garden more attractive to birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Foothill Penstemon. Photo by Laura Camp.
Foothill Penstemon. Photo by Laura Camp.

The slope garden is three to four years old now, but still getting established. Like a natural chaparral, the feeling is open, sunny and cheerful.  But I have not tried to replicate the precise combination of shrubby species that grow on our sunny Marin hillsides.  I planted several kinds of ceonothus and  manzanitas, matilija poppy (one is plenty!), yellow bush lupine, silver-leaf lupine, Cleveland sage ( the cultivar, Winifred Gilman), California sagebrush, Oregon sunshine, California buckwheat, flowering gooseberry and a low-growing Fremontodendron (the cultivar Ken Taylor). In the shadier section, coffeeberry (cultivar Mound San Bruno), snowberry and other gooseberries are thriving.

These young shrubs give the otherwise unorganized space a bit of structure and a feeling of permanence. The gaps between them are filled with perennial buckwheats, foothill penstemon, monkeyflowers, California fuchsia, and bunchgrasses, such as Idaho fescue and purple needlegrass. In the shady area, native heucheras, hummingbird sage and California woodfern provide foliage contrast and flowers in season.

In April and May, the annual wildflowers create a joyful riot of color. The silky, bright yellow blossoms of coastal California poppies make a big statement, together with masses of tidytips.  Quieter roles are taken by the lavender Chinese houses, the blue globe gilia and baby blue eyes, which thrive in partial shade on the mid-slope. When these have faded, clarkias and shade-tolerant large-flowered linanthus carry the display into June, July and even August.

This garden is not maintenance-free, partly because I mulch sparingly to leave room for the wildflowers. In winter, the chickweed, mustards and exotic grasses require weeding to prevent them from out-competing the annuals. Once this chore is finished, I just stand back and watch the young annuals surge to maturity. By late May or June, it’s time to weed again and cut the poppies to stimulate a second, less exuberant round of bloom.  The shrubs and perennials appreciate occasional watering during summer, until they are fully established.  By fall, the annual wildflowers have generally seeded themselves but periodically, I replant my favorites or try new species, always protecting the seeds and young plants from the birds with netting or floating row cover until they are a few inches high.

Like any garden, my custom chaparral is a work in progress. As it continues to evolve, I watch the changes, celebrate the successes, rethink the mistakes and plan for an even better slope garden next year.

Matilija Poppy. Photo by Laura Camp.
Matilija Poppy. Photo by Laura Camp.

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  1. This sounds like what I was trying to do when we moved in 35 years ago. I would love to see more pictures. I planted acorns and now have 25 ft trees. Jean in Los Altos

  2. I’d love to see your garden; it sounds beautiful. Also sounds like what I’d to use in our upcoming HOA’s lawn transformation. Love ceanothus and mimulus (Monkeyflower) has recently become one of my favorite plants. I planted my first last year and loved seeing it return. Is yours a ‘Yellow Georgie?’ Thank you for sharing. Diana in Petaluma

  3. I live at about 3500 feet in the Sierra Foothills on a southwest facing slope near Yosemite. I may have found a native ground cover for a southwest facing slope with horrible soil, Sonoma Sage (Salvia sonomensis). Sonoma sage grew on adjoining properties without water or any care. A neighbor allowed me to dig up some plants (with roots.)

    From a few small plants, I was able to propagate this in an drip irrigated area with good garden soil to the point that it spread vigorously then grew outside of the irrigated area and garden soil. It spread so well, in the fall/winter, I was able to transplant many “starts” to a southwest facing slope along my driveway which has horrible soil, but possible very late afternoon shade. (We may have several successive days of over 100 deg. F. temps. in the summer.) The 2nd transplants are growing well on the southwest slope, though I don’t irrigate it and the transplant method was “harsh”. This is a tough and vigorous plant! At this stage, I can recommend this plant, though I believe I will have to control it if it reaches better soil or irrigated areas.

    It appears to grow like ice plant, low and creeping. It currently requires some weeding of exotic grasses and weeds, though over time it may fill in to reduce weeding. The plants are prostrate with ~2″ long leaves that are a subtle grey green color which contrasts with beautiful blue flowers on short (1 foot or less) stalks that bloom in May. The leaves have a typical sage odor more typical of Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), than the native white sage (Salvia apiana) or the horticultural sage. I haven’t tried to use sonoma sage in recipes.

    My one concern is that Sonoma sage might spread beyond the slopes where I want it and be difficult to control, like ice plant. I seemed to be able to easily pull it out from the garden bed and the surrounding area when the soil was soft (winter), though it had branched significantly even underground.

    Does anyone have any experience with this plant in landscaping or the garden? I would like to plant this very low ground hugging plants on other expansive steep south and southwest facing slopes, as it appears to grow in heavy clay soil, with full sun and no additional water. (Due to the elevation, this area does get up to ~30 of snow/rain each year, but the ground dries like a brick as soon as the rains stops.)

    Any other suggestions for 1-6″ high native ground cover for full sun for expansive southwestern facing slopes? I try not to use cultivars of natives, as I live in the chaparral which has many of these species. Looking for a ground cover that should be here already. I’ve tried a local mat-like Ceanothus which I will call pine mat. Bear clover grows here too, but too tall. Silene sp. doesn’t seem to form mats. I like the height and cover of non-native Veronica sp and Thymus sp. ground covers as they are really really low and grow in full sun (with water and better soil), but would like to find a California native of the local Sierra Foothills. I can irrigate with drip in some areas.

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